Old at Heart
Advertisers love teens and young adults for a very simple reason: They generally spend more money than members of other demographic groups. That's why every media manager worth his pension claims that attracting this audience is a top priority -- and why they sometimes go to embarrassing extremes to do so. Take a recent e-mail attributed to a producer with CNN Headline News, who had compiled a slang dictionary intended to help his writers boost the youth appeal of graphics that crawl along the screen's bottom. According to a November 14 Associated Press piece, the producer wrote, "Please use this guide to help all you homeys and honeys add a new flava to your tickers and dekkos."
That guy's head is fat! And I don't mean phat!
Granted, clumsy uses of modern lingo can sometimes pay dividends. As delivered by actress Brittany Murphy in the film 8 Mile -- a carefully assembled, emotionally suspect apologia for Eminem -- the line "I hear you're a dope rapper" seems about as authentic as Justin Timberlake's approximation of ghetto cool. But it didn't prevent the flick from sucking up over $50 million in its first week.
For the most part, though, the only trendsetters fooled by techniques like these are the ones who buy their skate-punk clothes at Sears -- and fewer still pay much attention to traditional information programming. In the documentary Bowling for Columbine, director/star Michael Moore argues that U.S. high schoolers are increasingly apt to settle disagreements with guns partly because they're bombarded with violent imagery on television news shows. Yet the plain truth is that the vast majority of such students, and plenty of others south of thirty, would rather French kiss Jerry Lewis than watch the ten o'clock news -- and they have just as little interest in equivalent radio broadcasts or daily newspapers.
Why? Major media operations in Denver unintentionally offer a multitude of explanations. Based on viewing and reading over the past two weeks, the largest local electronic and print outfits seldom address topics of probable interest to the wrinkle-free set, and when they do, they often stumble into condescension.
Television newscasts aired on November 11 (a date chosen at random) provide some cases in point. Channel 2's 9 p.m. program hardly contradicted filmmaker Moore's observation about the media's fondness for gore. Of its first fourteen items, only number eight, which dealt with job losses at Denver International Airport, was entirely free of blood, death, mayhem or some combination thereof. As such, young people earned airtime only if they died tragically -- like two boys killed on an ATV and a snowboarder who perished on Colorado's slopes -- or did something really moronic. Following a report about a teenager burned while mimicking a stunt from Jackass: The Movie, anchor Ernie Bjorkman muttered "Geez," so apparently dumbfounded was he by the stupidity of the younger generation.
The youth quotient was much the same on other Denver newscasts. During its 5 p.m. show, Channel 9 gave prominent play to Veteran's Day festivities -- a valid editorial decision. But of the seventeen reports aired (excluding weather and sports segments), only one, about the "white gold" falling on ski areas, featured young adults. On Channel 7 at 6 p.m., just one person under thirty appeared -- a teenager who said nice things about veterans being celebrated at Standley Lake High School. As for Channel 4's 10 p.m. effort, it contained November 11's best broadcast report, a Rick Salinger investigation about gun shows, but no young folks at all, unless a certain percentage of skiers seen in a long shot were counted.
That left Channel 31 as the only station on this particular evening to acknowledge the existence of individuals young enough to have never seen Johnny Carson live on The Tonight Show. Like the other stations, its 9 p.m. newscast covered a recent rash of pet mutilations, but it was the only one to include a sound bite from a neighborhood teen disgusted by the crimes. (The absence of youngsters from other channels' reports implied that disturbed kids were the most likely suspects.) Also on tap was a "Fame or Shame" sequence, in which "troubleshooter" Tom Martino tested teeth-whitening strips on a gaggle of twenty-something cigar smokers, and clips of youthful contestants vying for stardom in a "Colorado Idol" talent competition. These last two segments deserve credit for concentrating on folks for whom middle age represents the future, not the present or the past. Too bad they were also innocuous and fluffy in the extreme.
If anything, local news/talk radio addressed youth-oriented topics even less frequently than did area TV news. After two weeks of listening to weekday morning and afternoon drive offerings on a variety of signals, I stumbled upon just one instance of a host devoting significant airtime to a youthful topic: KHOW's Scott Redmond spoke for portions of several days about attending a No Doubt concert that took place November 6 at the Denver Coliseum. However, Redmond's focus wasn't on the music, but upon a few profanities spewed from the stage, and whether such words were inappropriate at a performance attended by many children.
Redmond wasn't overtly hysterical when discussing this alleged sin. He said Gwen Stefani and company shouldn't be censored, and he encouraged parents to talk with their kids about the appropriateness of casual obscenity usage. But having attended this concert with my nine-year-old daughters, I can testify that language was hardly an issue. Comparatively few tots were in attendance, and the bare handful of F-bombs dropped were almost completely concealed by the music. Moreover, Redmond's lecture seemed primarily calculated to rev up the aging bluenoses in his listenership, which it did. One caller registered his discontent with young people today by noting that he used to attend live performances by bandleader Glenn Miller, who never had to resort to dirty talk to score with fans.
Apparently, this gentleman isn't familiar with big band's short-lived "gangsta" period, remembered primarily for Miller's slammin' "Moonlight Motherfuckin' Serenade."
Journalists at the Denver dailies aren't quite so out of touch, but they, too, have struggled to write about popular culture without giving off the scent of paternalism. The most egregious example of late appeared in the November 9 Rocky Mountain News, which devoted the lion's share of its "Spotlight" section to "Dumb and Dumber," a collection of articles by Mark Brown, Mark Wolf and Dusty Saunders that decried the empty-headedness of current pop music, television and so on. In most of the pieces, the writers acknowledged that crappy hit songs or movies aren't new phenomena, and South Park was even praised for being somewhat less dumb that it seems on the surface. But that didn't prevent the package as a whole from coming across as alternately alarmist and snobbish -- qualities guaranteed to turn off young people quicker than saltpeter.
The Denver Post has done better in this arena than has the News, thanks largely to new hire Ricardo Baca, who's single-handedly brought the paper's music coverage into the 21st century. But on occasion, the paper continues to address youthful subjects from an outsider's, rather than an insider's, perspective. Take Elana Ashanti Jefferson's November 6 profile of Dent, a Denver rap scenester. The mere presence of such an article was a step in the right direction. But after an opening passage about Dent, the narrative stopped to make room for a brief history of the hip-hop genre, complete with references to Kool Herc and the Sugarhill Gang.
The problem with that is obvious: Hip-hop is in its fourth decade, making it long past the time for introductions. (The equivalent would be a 1980s-vintage article about a rock singer in which the writer felt compelled to include a timeline featuring Bill Haley, Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry.) The approach treats hip-hop like something bizarre and alien and makes the Post seem thoroughly corny for explaining its origins.
Then again, at least the Post is trying to establish a connection with young people, which is more than most other old-school Denver media enterprises are doing. But it remains to be seen if its new flava will attract many homeys and honeys.
A trial with teeth: Most reporters like to portray themselves as rough-and-tumble sorts who are more than capable of drawing blood against the most fearsome adversaries. But late last month, Rocky Mountain News reporter Owen Good had to admit in a Boulder courtroom that he wound up on the losing end of a confrontation with a somewhat less intimidating antagonist -- a Jack Russell terrier named Stanley.
For Good, the incident capped a series of weird events revolving around a basement apartment in Boulder County where he lived beginning in January 2001. About a year later, just after Good renewed his lease, landlord Scott Stoltz and his brother, Rick Stoltz, took off in a Volkswagen Vanagon for what they said was a cross-country vacation. Then, in March, Good happened to eyeball a letter directed to his upstairs neighbors (Stanley's owners), whose return address was a rubber stamp for a federal correction facility. Worse, it was supplemented by Scott's name and inmate number. As it turns out, the Stoltzes had been busted for growing marijuana in Gilpin County and currently reside in a Florence, Colorado, prison.
Good called the U.S. Attorney's Office and was reassured that the house wasn't the subject of an attachment proceeding. "He said, 'Not unless someone's in the basement cooking crank,'" Good recalls. "I told him, 'I live in the basement, so I don't think so.' But I didn't have the stones to ask him if I'd been under surveillance."
As the months wore on, tensions between Good and his neighbors escalated in direct proportion to his deteriorating relationship with Stanley. Finally, on September 7, the terrier demonstrated his contempt for Good by chomping on his ankle while he was taking old newspapers to the recycling bin. After efforts to work things out with the neighbors failed, Good filed a vicious-dog complaint with local animal-control representatives. During the October 28 hearing, city prosecutor Erin O'Brien says, the neighbors accused Good of trumping things up to get out of his lease, but Good denies it. "That gives me too much credit," he insists. "If all it took to get out of my lease was a dog bite, I would have worn hamburger shoes all summer."
In the end, Scott Stoltz allowed Good to move out in exchange for his cleaning deposit; he's been gone since late September. Although Stanley is still there, he needs to be on his best behavior. The court ordered him to see a trainer, who'll evaluate his aggressiveness and determine if further instruction is necessary.
As for Good, he's learned that even in victory, he's not invincible. "I'd like to think that I have a journalist's thick skin," he says. "Apparently, I'm a little thin around the ankles."Hart failure: When News reporter Good isn't fending off canines, he's generally covering events in the Boulder area -- and an article he wrote about one such happening, a speech by former Colorado Senator Gary Hart, put him in another uncomfortable situation.
Here's the sequence of events. On November 5, the Denver Post published "Gary Hart Considers White House Bid," a page-one piece that took off from comments made on the November 3 edition of ABC's This Week about a possible Oval Office run by the 1988 presidential candidate. Two days later, on November 7, Hart spoke to a political-science class at the University of Colorado, and when pressed, briefly addressed the presidential gossip. Good's synopsis of this appearance turned up in the News the next day under the headline "In Hart-to-Heart Talk at CU, Ex-Senator Says He Won't Run: Presidential Rumors Put to Rest, But He Still Hopes to Contribute." But neither the Colorado Daily nor the Boulder Daily Camera, which both covered Hart's CU session, reached the same conclusion. Their headlines were, respectively, "Hart Coy on Presidential Bid" and "Hart Downplays Speculation: But Former Senator Won't Rule Out Running in 2004." As if that weren't enough, Hart hemmed and hawed about the race in another interview with the Post, which turned up on its November 10 cover.
Despite what looks like a botch job on his part, Good says he stands by his article -- and a close read of it shows why. He quoted Hart as saying, "I don't want to run for office, but I want to make a contribution" -- a comment that was hardly unequivocal and gave him plenty of wiggle room. That means the staffer who wrote the headline didn't appreciate the political nuances of Hart's phrasing and concocted a banner that would make the News look tone deaf in subsequent days.
Whether the Post was justified in giving Hart's musings so much up-front ink is another question worth pondering, because Newt Gingrich would have a better chance of winning the 2004 Democratic nomination. But if the Post's enthusiasm -- the crux of a curious November 17 media critique by News commentators Diane Eicher and Joe Bullard -- nudges Hart toward such a kamikaze mission, it'll certainly make for a livelier election.
Come back, Donna Rice. All is forgiven.
Story time: In the November 2 Rocky Mountain News, veteran columnist Gary Massaro began an obituary of 82-year-old Carole Tool as follows: "This is a love story that endured into a seventh decade and at one time spanned 12 time zones. It is a story about separation during war, and reunion in time of peace. It is the story of Carole and Jean Tool."
A perfectly serviceable way to begin -- but also a familiar one. Several months ago, a reader collected first lines from a slew of Massaro columns. Take a gander at the sampling below and try to identify the common thread:
April 20, 2002: "It was a love story that was just meant to be."
March 26, 2002: "Call this the story of little ladies with big feats."
March 4, 2002: "This could have been a story about how a feud divided a neighborhood. Instead, it is the story of one person who helped hold it together."
November 11, 2000: "This is a story of two war heroes."
May 11, 1999: "This is a story about the Lion in Spring."
March 16, 1999: "This is a story about the prayer house that Ruth built."
March 22, 1998: "This is a story of the caddy in the Audi."
December 4, 1995: "This is a story about love and devotion and what it means to do the best you can with what you have."
June 24, 1995: "This is a story about the Music Man of Wheat Ridge."
June 5, 1995: "This is a story about six friends who have stuck closer together than a postage stamp on an envelope."
October 5, 1994: "This is a story about four women who have made a commitment to fitness and friendship."
June 13, 1994: "This is a story of tears and terror."
And this is the story of a columnist, Massaro, who writes almost every day -- so it's not surprising that he falls back on formula every so often. But with luck, it's also a story about Massaro giving the "story" lead a rest for a while.
Hope the story has a happy ending.
Hoisted on my own petard: This week, my own ending is thoroughly unhappy.
In a November 7 column that found me pointing out a couple of names misspelled by Denver Post columnist Bill Husted, I misspelled a name, too -- that of Post transportation writer Jeff Leib. I humbly apologize for this error, and offer my pledge to never make a similar mistake again to Mr. Leib, the average reader and Westword editor Patricia Calhoon.